Pro & Con: Should U.S. quicken drawdown of troops in Afghanistan?

By Matthew Hoh

As he was announcing his second increase in troops for Afghanistan in December 2009, President Barack Obama promised that by July 2011 those troops would begin coming home. As relayed by Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars,” we know the president was skeptical about the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Yet the president’s new plan for the war extends the longest war in American history for the foreseeable future.

Obama announced his first surge of 20,000 troops in spring 2009. Pushing American forces well above the 50,000 mark and reinforcing a counterinsurgency strategy, he escalated a war in a country entering its fourth decade of continuous conflict.

Thousands of Marines and soldiers were rushed in, with the announcement that they were there to ensure free and fair Afghan elections. That summer, these troops found an insurgency fueled by resentment of their presence. Either because of hostility to foreign occupation or because our troops simply sided with someone else’s rival, 2009 became the deadliest year of the war, doubling the amount of American dead in 2008.

Meanwhile, the fire hydrant-like stream of dollars, being pumped into the second-most corrupt nation in the world, seemed to purchase only further grievances among the population against a government radiantly kleptocratic. When President Hamid Karzai blatantly stole the elections in August, American officials were forced to abandon any narrative of Americans fighting and dying for democracy in Afghanistan. Then, in October, National Security Advisor Jim Jones announced that al-Qaida had fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan.

However, given little political cover from the left, feeling little political pressure from the right and receiving nothing but a choice of small, medium or large escalation of the war by the Pentagon, Obama in December 2009 ordered in 30,000 more troops.

Predictably, by doubling down on a policy that had proved counterproductive, we betrayed our national values and failed to inflict damage on al-Qaida. We also went from being waist-deep to chest-deep in quicksand. This past year surpassed 2009 as the deadliest year of the conflict, killing 57 percent more American service members.

Tragically, 2011 has been even more deadly. Insurgent attacks from January to March increased nearly 50 percent from the same period in 2010, while American deaths from March to May of this year increased 41 percent from last spring.

By the administration’s own account, al-Qaida has not existed in any meaningful capacity in Afghanistan since we successfully scattered them in 2001. Our Afghan war policy does not affect al-Qaida.

Moreover, our policies have destabilized the region, most notably in Pakistan, a nuclear nation with 170 million people.

Despite bipartisan support for an accelerated drawdown, Obama announced last week the withdrawal of 30,000 troops through next year. Such a withdrawal, particularly without a change in strategy, will only bring us back to where we were in December 2009.

The president should go further — removing the most recent 30,000 surge troops by the end of 2011 and reducing to a total of fewer than 30,000 troops by the end of 2012. Combined with sincere political efforts in Afghanistan and the broader region, and by maintaining a focus on al-Qaida, the U.S. can move Afghanistan and the region toward stability, while freeing itself from its quicksand.

Matthew Hoh is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and the director of the Afghanistan Study Group. He served with the Marine Corps in Iraq and with State Department teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.

NO: With the war not yet won, Obama’s plan goes too far, too soon.

By Gordon R. Sullivan and James M. Dubik

The withdrawal plan announced by President Barack Obama last week is an example of war waged not by policy, but by election cycle. Wars are won when the enemy accepts defeat and strategic aims are achieved. Neither is the case in Afghanistan yet. We left the job undone in 2003, dragging the war out and costing more in blood and treasure — and we are at risk of making the same mistake again.

Let’s be clear: We should be much farther along in Afghanistan than we are, but the United States and its NATO allies used a flawed strategy in Afghanistan for eight years. The “counter-terrorist plus” strategy, the de facto American policy from 2001 to 2009, had our forces go after al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorists while protecting critical infrastructure and completing reconstruction projects. It wasn’t until the Strasbourg Summit of April 2009 that NATO formally recognized that an insurgency existed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan became an “economy of effort” and money, personnel and strategic attention were cut to wage the war in Iraq.

Executing a flawed strategy with insufficient resources was getting us nowhere. Obama acknowledged as much, saying in his December 2009 speech at West Point, “Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards.” The president’s speech followed a strategic review that confirmed the importance of success in Afghanistan and identified, for the first time since the start of the war, a strategy that matched our security interests and provided adequate resourcing for that strategy — more troops, attention and funds.

In spring 2010, NATO and the U.S. finally were able to take the offensive to attain the objectives Obama outlined in his West Point speech: “Deny al-Qaida a safe haven ... reverse the Taliban’s momentum ... deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And ... strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” The intervening months have seen discernible progress toward these goals, but they are not yet accomplished and the progress is reversible, especially if our enemies perceive that America’s will is waning. The problem is just that — our will is waning, and the president’s announcement demonstrates this.

If money is the overriding issue, then the real question becomes, “How much are we willing to spend to not attain our declared strategic aims?” Cutting our forces as much and as fast as the president announced is the equivalent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordering, in the fall of 1944, a troop reduction in Europe because the campaign against Germany was progressing, with the end in sight. Such logic doesn’t stand up in war.

Reducing troops to the level the president announced puts at risk the gains we fought to achieve, and risks arresting the momentum of the counter-offensive. We will hand a respite to our enemies, and they will take advantage of it. And we will begin to slow the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces, a key component of the Afghan force acceleration.

Protracted wars are rarely cheaper than decisive ones. Many of the American service men and women now serving in Afghanistan were 8 years old when this war started. The president is in a tough position considering the U.S. debt and economic recovery. But the savings that might result from cutting forces as announced this year and next are minimal compared to risk of committing the next generation of 8-year-olds to fight a war that we now have the opportunity to finish.

Gen. (Ret.) Gordan R. Sullivan, president of the Association of the United States Army, is a former chief of staff of the U. S. Army.

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James M. Dubik is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

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